Key to Effectiveness of New Technologies: The Human Component

17 May, 2019 Nancy Grover


Orlando, FL ( - Exoskeletons can be a great tool to help workers lift heavy loads — as long as they don’t cause a musculoskeletal disorder in the process. One of the challenges of using these devices is over-attributing the power one has while wearing them and, instead, letting the machine do its part. The sheer weight of the device, which can be upwards of 1,000 pounds, is another complication.

Exoskeletons are just one example of new technologies that hold great promise for the workforce, but also come with their own challenges and carry risks to workers. Robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced manufacturing — all can be used in various ways to improve productivity and keep workers safe and healthy. But they are not human and, ultimately, are best used when humans are part of the process.

Moral Understanding

In the movie, i,Robot, two cars are sinking in the water. Detective Del Spooner tells the robot, which can only save one of them, “save the girl.” Instead, the robot calculates the odds of survival for each — 45 percent for Spooner and 11 percent for the girl — and saves the detective, allowing the girl to drown.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer — or HAL — controls the spacecraft and can do everything from speaking, reading lips, and interpreting emotional behaviors, to playing chess. But the one trait it does not share with humans is the ability to make morally appropriate decisions. While HAL is programmed to relay information accurately, it also has knowledge of the mission that is hidden from the onboard astronauts. When faced with the two conflicting requirements, it makes what it deems the best decision: kill the astronauts rather than having to lie to them.

Hollywood’s depictions of the ethical challenges inherent with modern age machines graphically illustrate just one of the reasons they need human involvement. Self-driving vehicles demonstrate another.

“The challenge of this is having the car see. That’s a big issue,” said John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “It needs to be able to tell, is that a person in front of me, a box, or a bump to go over.”

Speaking at the NCCI Annual Issues Symposium here this week Howard outlined a plethora of new technologies and the exciting opportunities they afford; but also cautioned that there are potential problems with all of them and require humans to oversee them.

Latest, Greatest Robots

Thanks to AI and other technologies, these have the ability to sense, ‘think,’ and act. Robots can reduce operational costs substantially. They need no benefits or coffee breaks, for example.

“Robots are just better than a human worker for mundane, repetitive precision jobs,” Howard said. “They have memories, are connected to the internet, have high processes for data analysis and can provide informational support.”

Robots can be used in dangerous areas — such as confined spaces or mines — and to do risky jobs, such as painting high rise buildings.

When combined with the Internet of Things, robots can detect and mitigate machine-related safety hazards, for example. Sensor technology is expanding and sensors can now be attached to everything from the ground, to clothing and vehicles.

There are now several types of robots. In addition to traditional industrial robots are collaborative robots — or cobots. These work in the same space as humans and have sensors designed to stop the robot when it comes in contact with a worker. A person controls and/or uses an algorithm to move the robotic arm, for example. One of the challenges, however is the inability of these machines to grasp a previously unknown object.

Service cobots move alongside in a shared space with humans. Automated ground robots are especially useful in agriculture, mining and manufacturing. Service robots also include unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, which are increasingly being used in the construction industry. They can monitor sites, inspect, and be used for maintenance.

Social robots can detect emotions by analyzing facial expressions and voice tones. These offer potential use in healthcare settings for social interaction, such as nursing or convalescent homes. They’re being used in Europe, Howard said.  

Risks and Challenges

Robot-related injuries are a concern, as there have been nearly 4,000 between 2003 and 2016 and the numbers are likely to increase. Collisions between robots and people working in the same space are one example. Using a robot with dynamic machine learning capabilities that learns from its environment needs a space specifically designed for the interaction of the machine with humans.

The rapid advancements in the use of robots requires constant updating of safety procedures.  The existing American National Standard for industrial robots and robot systems approved in 2013 is already obsolete, Howard explained.

The changing workplace from the use of robotic devices along with the potential to replace some workers is adding stress to the workforce.

While the use of new technologies has tremendous potential for business and can help prevent injuries to workers, they must be implemented with care. “All are connected,” Howard said, “we are just beginning to learn about how we connect all of them together to produce a safe and healthful workplace.”

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    About The Author

    • Nancy Grover

      Nancy Grover is a freelance writer having recently retired as the Director, Media Services for She comes to our company with more than 35 years as a broadcast journalist and communications consultant. Grover’s specialties include insurance, workers’ compensation, financial services, substance abuse, healthcare and disability. For 12 years she served as the Program Chair of the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. A journalism/speech graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, Grover also holds an MBA from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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